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Digital distortion: Art or mischief?

Sampling is sometimes renegade, sometimes condoned

Digital distortion: Art or mischief?

From Andrew Brown

HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Record companies say they own the music covered by their labels. But that legal right may not protect the work: Anyone with a laptop computer and cheap software can take a copyrighted work, cut a new version of a smash hit and then sell it.

But for that matter, sometimes that new version is something approved by the original label.

You can hear the unapproved side of things in a quiet Hong Kong neighborhood, where two musicians are having a good time creating albums from material that's been lifted from just about everywhere. The Internet. Their friends. Even movies.

CNN's Andrew Brown reports on Digital Cut Up Lounge, two guys who make techno music from bits and pieces of recordings, via computer. (April 12)

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The end product is something called "Minimal Techno." And it sells.

Several people who call themselves Digital Cutup Lounge have already produced two albums -- based mainly on samples that are mixed and remixed on laptops -- promoted by a tiny record company called

"The actual cost for the label and ourselves ... the actual production costs are almost nothing," says Stephen Ives of Digital Cutup Lounge.

His partner, John Von Seggern, adds that it also allows them a lot of freedom.

"This gives us an immense amount of power as artists," says Seggern.

The jury's no longer out

But sampling other people's music doesn't necessarily mean you're powerful.

The jury's no longer out

In 1991, a United States judge ruled that sampling without permission is theft under criminal law after agreeing that Gilbert O'Sullivan's hit "Alone Again Naturally" had been illegally sampled by rapper Biz Markie.

Another loser in that case was Biz Markie's record company, Warner Bros. -- now part of CNN's parent company, AOL Time Warner. Court documents show the defendants never pretended their work was original.

But what happens if content -- any content -- is sampled and then digitally distorted so that no one can recognize the original source? Who owns this?

Answer: probably no one.

"There's nothing anybody can do about it," says media analyst Peter Schloss. "As long as it's not substantially similar or confusingly similar to the public."

Digital Cutup Lounge's Seggern admits the group used the soundtrack from the 1983 film "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence," mixing music by composer Ryuichi Sakamoto with John Coltrane. Would Sakamoto ever know?

"I took Sakamoto's piece and reversed it and cut pieces out of it," says Seggern. "Which I think makes it pretty unrecognizable."

Sometimes the labels are in

Record companies are trying hard to make sense of such sonic chaos. And in some cases, a record company may have a hand in it.

Sometimes the labels are in

Universal had Digital Cutup Lounge rework one of Nelly Furtado's recent hits and attempt a remix of "Escape" by Enrique Iglesias. Elsewhere, Eminem has successfully sampled Dido.

But analysts say that independent artists who remix songs under the supervision of a major label can end up frustrated.

"To get the copyright, to get the right to use a sample -- unless the copyright owner likes the way you're using that sample -- they're not going to give you the right," says Schloss.

"They're going to send you back to the recording studio and say, 'Go start again.' Or 'In fact, you know what? Don't come to me at all.'"

Which doesn't mean sampling grinds to a halt, since Digital Cutup Lounge says it has only just scratched the surface.


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